Monday, December 12, 2005

SAFE exhibit is just too risky
SAFE exhibit is just too risky

Usually a museum visit leaves you feeling pretty great. You've seen some art, some genius and you feel high on mankind's creativity, as well as on your own classy, museum-going self.

Stop by the Museum of Modern Art anytime soon, however, and be prepared to leave feeling fetid.

"SAFE: Design Takes On Risk" is the show that'll do it - room after room of smart, slick items, all beautifully designed to protect us from the sicko world we are stuck in. Items like bulletproof blankets, because who knows who's gonna climb through the fire escape? And tiny hermetically sealed tents for babies to sleep in - during bioterror attacks.

You've got your bombproof windows (invented in Israel - big surprise), and your bulletproof face masks, because bulletproof vests leave the head a tempting target. Then there are the stilt-like shoes built to walk the wearer safely through a minefield. The little card next to them notes that every 20 minutes, someone, somewhere is killed or maimed by a mine.

"From paper cuts to genocide" is how curator Paola Antonelli describes the range of threats her show addresses. And she really does have some paper-cut level doodads thrown in to buoy the soul. The "banana bunker," for instance, is a curved, clear plastic case built to protect a single banana from bruising. Then there's the Swiss Fondue Earthquake Safety Table. This looks like a cheery red kitchen table, but attached to its underside are disaster necessities ranging from clean water and a fire extinguisher to fondue forks and cheese.

Silly, funny, cute. And real.

But then you're back to other real stuff, like the interlocking silver rings that double as brass knuckles. (This Christmas, for her?) And high-tech camouflage that allows warriors to infiltrate any environment. (For him?)

The weapons and armor are new, but great minds throughout history have always been devising new ways to keep us alive. Many a museum show has been devoted to their handiwork, but these were never as shocking because the objects were antique. The suits of armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, just look shiny and cool. Most of us don't give much thought to how miserable it must have been living in an era when young men jousted each other to death.

Likewise, if you tour pretty much anywhere in the world, your guide will eventually bring you to a breathtaking castle. How beautiful it is! How you'll wish it contained a reasonably priced bed and breakfast! But roll back the clock 500 years and this was the place crazed peasants were clamoring to get into before the guys behind them slit their throats. Moats, drawbridges, canons, swords - these may seem romantic today, but they were all lifesaving breakthroughs in their day.

Which only means that sometime in the future museumgoers may ooh and ahh over the varied stuff on display at SAFE. How cute the baby gas mask will seem! Maybe they'll buy a postcard of it.

Then again, that's only if the SAFE devices do their job, right?